His father was a Kenyan participant in the Mau Mau Uprising, and served as Kenya's first ambassador to the United Nations. Morello's paternal uncle, Jomo Kenyatta, was the first elected president in Kenyan history. His parents met in August 1963, while attending a pro-democracy protest in Nairobi, Kenya, and Morello was conceived the first night they made love. After discovering her pregnancy, Mary returned to the United States with Njoroge in November, and married in New York City.
When Morello was 16 months old, Njoroge returned to his native Kenya, and denied his paternity of his son. Morello was raised solely by his mother in Libertyville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. There he attended Libertyville High School, where his mother was a U.S. history teacher. She was the homeroom teacher for Tom's classmate and fellow guitarist Adam Jones, of the band Tool, while teaching at Libertyville. Tom sang in the school choir and was active in speech and drama club; a prominent role was Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Morello developed leftist political leanings early, and has described himself as having been "the only anarchist in a conservative high school", and has since identified as a nonsectarian socialist. In the 1980 mock elections at Libertyville, he campaigned for a fictitious anarchist "candidate" named Hubie Maxwell, who came in fourth place in the election. He also wrote a piece headlined "South Africa: Racist Fascism That We Support" for the school alternative newspaper The Student Pulse.
Morello graduated from high school with honors in June 1982, and enrolled at Harvard University as a political science student that autumn. He was the first student at his high school to be accepted at Harvard, and was in fact the first person from Libertyville, Illinois ever to enroll there. Morello graduated in 1986 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Harvard. He moved to Los Angeles, where he first supported himself by working as an exotic male stripper.
"When I graduated from Harvard and moved to Hollywood, I was unemployable. I was literally starving, so I had to work menial labour and, at one point, I even worked as an exotic dancer. 'Brick House' (by The Commodores) was my jam! I did bachlorette parties and I'd go down to my boxer shorts. Would I go further? All I can say is thank God it was in the time before YouTube! You could make decent money doing that job – people do what they have to do."
Adam Jones moved to Los Angeles as well; Morello introduced Jones and Maynard James Keenan to Danny Carey, who would come to form the band Tool.
From 1987 to 1989, Morello worked in the office of California Democratic Senator Alan Cranston. However, this proved to be a negative experience of Morello, who decided never to pursue a career in politics.
"I never had any real desire to work in politics but if there was any ember burning in me, it was extinguished working in that job because of two things: one of them was the fact that 80 per cent of the time I spent with the Senator, he was on the phone asking rich people for money. It just made me understand that the whole business was dirty. He had to compromise his entire being every day. The other was the time a woman phoned up to the office and wanted to complain that there were Mexicans moving into her neighborhood. I said to her, 'Ma'am, you're a damn racist,' and she was indignant. I thought I was representing our cause well, but I got yelled at for a week by everyone for saying that! I thought to myself that if I'm in a job where I can't call a damn racist a damn racist, then it's not for me.."
Morello also became a vegetarian, due to both health and ethical reasons.
At age 13, Morello joined his first band; a Led Zeppelin cover band as the lead singer. At this same age, Morello purchased his first guitar. Around 1984, Morello first started studying the guitar seriously. He had formed a band in the same year called the Electric Sheep which featured future Tool guitarist Adam Jones on bass. The band wrote original material that included politically charged lyrics. None of the songs composed by the Sheep contained solos; soloing was a skill that Morello began learning in college.
At the time, Morello's musical tastes lay in the direction of heavy metal, particularly Kiss, Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. Morello developed his own unique sound through the electric guitar. Later, his music and musical politics were greatly influenced by punk rock bands like The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and Devo.
In 1991 Tom was looking to form a new band after Lock Up disbanded. Tom was impressed by Zack de la Rocha's freestyle rapping and asked him to join his band. He also drafted drummer Brad Wilk, who he knew from his band Lock Up, where Wilk unsuccessfully auditioned for a drumming spot. The band's lineup was completed when Zack convinced his childhood friend Tim Commerford to play bass. After frequenting the L.A. club circuit, Rage Against the Machine signed a record deal with Epic Records in 1992. That same year, the band released their self titled debut. They achieved a considerable amount of mainstream success and released three more studio albums.
In August 2000 in Los Angeles at the Democratic National Convention, Rage Against the Machine performed outside the Staples Center to a large crowd numbering in the many thousands while the Convention took place inside. After several audience members began to throw rocks, the Los Angeles Police Department turned off the power and ordered the audience to disperse, firing rubber bullets and pepper spray into the crowd.
In late 2000, after Commerford's stunt at the VMA's, the disgruntled de la Rocha quit the band. On September 13, 2000, Rage Against the Machine performed their last concert at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. After the band disbanded, their fourth studio album, Renegades, became a collection of cover songs from artists such as Bob Dylan, MC5, Bruce Springsteen and Cypress Hill. 2003 saw the release of their last album, titled Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, an edited recording of the band's final two concerts on September 12 and 13, 2000 at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. It was accompanied by an expanded DVD release of the last show and included a previously unreleased music video for "Bombtrack".
After disbanding, Morello, Wilk and Commerford went on to form Audioslave with former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, and released three albums as well as a DVD from the band's concert in Cuba. De la Rocha started working on a solo album collaboration with DJ Shadow, Company Flow, and The Roots' Questlove, but the project was dropped in favor of working with Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. Recording was completed, but the album will probably never be released. So far, only one track has been released: "We Want It All" was featured on "Songs and Artists that Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11".
On April 29, 2007, Rage Against the Machine reunited at the Coachella Music Festival. The band played in front of an EZLN backdrop to the largest crowds of the festival. The performance was initially thought to be a one-off, this turned out not to be the case. The band played 7 more shows in the United States in 2007 (including their first non-festival concert in 7 years at the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin), and in January 2008, they played their first shows outside the US since re-forming as part of the Big Day Out Festival in Australia and New Zealand. In August 2008 they headlined nights at the Reading and Leeds festivals.
The band has since continued to tour around the world, headlining many large festivals in Europe and the United States, including Lollapalooza in Chicago. In 2008 the band also played shows in Denver, Colorado and Minneapolis, Minnesota to coincide with the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention, respectively. Though they played together for these events, they do not play together regularly.
After de la Rocha left Rage Against the Machine, the remaining band mates began collaborating with former Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell at the suggestion of producer Rick Rubin. The new group was first rumored to be called The Civilian Project, but the name Audioslave was confirmed before their first album was released.
The band released their eponymous debut album on November 19, 2002. It was a critical and commercial success, attaining triple-platinum status.
The band released their second album, Out of Exile, on May 24, 2005. It debuted at number 1 on the Billboard charts and attained platinum status. In the same year, they released a DVD documenting their trip as the first American rock band to play a free show in Cuba. The band's third album, Revelations, was released in the fall of 2006. As of February 15, 2007, Audioslave have broken up as a result of frontman Cornell's departure due to "irresolvable personality conflicts". The band reunited with Zack de la Rocha and resumed their previous band, Rage Against the Machine.
Morello is less known for his folk music, which he plays under the alias The Nightwatchman. He has explained:
"The Nightwatchman is my political folk alter ego. I've been writing these songs and playing them at open mic nights with friends for some time. This is the first time I've toured with it. When I play open mic nights, it's announced as The Nightwatchman. There will be kids there who are fans of my electric guitar playing, and you see them there scratching their heads.
But it's something that I enjoy doing. I look at it more as an extension of my politics. Then again, some of the songs are not explicitly political. It really helped me grow as an artist and songwriter. Once you prick the vein you never know what is going to come out. You could aim for all union songs and you find yourself in other territory."
In November 2003 The Nightwatchman joined artists Billy Bragg, Lester Chambers of The Chambers Brothers, Steve Earle, Jill Sobule, Boots Riley of The Coup and Mike Mills of R.E.M. on the Tell Us the Truth Tour. The thirteen-city tour was supported by unions, environmental and media reform groups including Common Cause, Free Press and A.F.L.-C.I.O. with the ultimate goal of "informing music fans, and exposing and challenging the failures of the major media outlets in the United States." Tom Morello explained:
"Media consolidation needs smashing and globalization needs unmasking. When presidents and politicians lie, it is the job of the press to expose those lies. When the press fails, the gangstas come out from hiding. The lie becomes the law. The point of the Tell Us the Truth Tour is to help others make connections, and to show them that activism can change the policies of this country."
One of his many songs, "No One Left", which compares the aftermath of September 11 to that of a U.S. attack on Iraq, appears on the album Songs and Artists that Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11.
The Nightwatchman also appeared on the album/DVD Axis Of Justice: Concert Series Volume 1, contributing the songs "Until the End", "The Road I Must Travel", and "Union Song".
Morello, as The Nightwatchman, released his debut solo album, One Man Revolution, on April 24, 2007.
The Nightwatchman joined the Dave Matthews Band for its short European tour in May 2007. As well as opening for the Dave Matthews Band, he was invited to guest on a couple of songs each night. The last night of this Morello/DMB arrangement was May 30, 2007 at Wembley Arena in London, on Tom's birthday.
The Nightwatchman is currently supporting Ben Harper on tour. During this tour, Morello has been joining Harper onstage for a cover of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War", on which he plays the electric guitar in the style for which he's best known.
Morello has presided over a Hotel Cafe residency in L.A. since November 2007, which has featured many of his musical cohorts, including Serj Tankian, Perry Farrell, Jon Foreman from Switchfoot, Shooter Jennings, Nuno Bettencourt, Queen V, Sen Dog from Cypress Hill, Jill Sobule, Boots Riley, Alexi Murdoch, Wayne Kramer from MC5, and others.
On October 10, 2008, The Nightwatchman appeared on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson as a musical guest, promoting his new album The Fabled City.
Following Audioslave's breakup in 2007, Morello met up with Boots Riley of The Coup, suggesting that they start a band which Morello had named Street Sweeper. After giving Riley a tape of various songs to write to, the two created the duo Street Sweeper Social Club.
Street Sweeper Social Club opened for Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction in May 2009.
Morello is famed for his guitar style, which consists of heavy metal/punk hybrid riffs and hip hop-inspired sounds. His guitar playing is also characterized by heavy use of guitar effects, such as delay, modulation, wah, harmonizers, distortion, feedback, and others in unique ways and combinations. The most recognizable effect in Morello's arsenal is the Digitech Whammy, which helps him create many of his sounds. Matthew Bellamy of the English band Muse has cited Morello as an influence, which can be heard in his use of pitch-shifting in solos.
To produce his alien guitar sounds, Morello chooses various effects pedals. During his tenure in RATM, he used a Dunlop Cry Baby, a Digitech WH-1 Whammy, a Boss DD-2 Digital Delay, a DOD EQ pedal (set flat and just used to boost the volume during guitar solos or particular rocking moments), and an Ibanez DFL Flanger. Around the time of The Battle of Los Angeles he added a Boss TR-2 Tremolo pedal (which can be heard on "Guerrilla Radio"). For Audioslave, Morello replaced the Ibanez Flanger with a MXR Phase 90. His amplifier of choice has always been a 50-watt Marshall JCM 800 2205 and a Peavey 4x12 cabinet. Though the Marshall is his amp of choice with Rage Against the Machine, he used a Vox AC30 combo amplifier for multiple overdubs on Audioslave's 'Revelations' album. While the Marshall amplifier has two channels, he only uses the overdrive channel, and simply turns down the volume on his guitar to get cleaner sounds.
In the studio, Morello uses the same setup for the bulk of the guitar tracks. For The Battle of Los Angeles, he also used a few other amps, such as a Line 6 as heard on the clean, spacey intro of "Mic Check", plus a Pignose mini-amp and a MusicMan "Twin" style amp. During the recording of Audioslave's last album Revelations Morello experimented with different amplifier setups. For the title track's solo he split his signal to his standard Marshall 2205 head and Peavey cabinet and a 100 watt Fender Bassman head and an Orange cabinet. With delay sent to one while the other is unaffected the sound is being "ping-ponged" between the two amplifiers. He also borrowed a VOX AC30 amplifier from producer Brendan O’Brien for some tracks.